On October 6, after the telephone conversation between Presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the White House announced in a short official statement that American forces were being withdrawn from the border territory of northern Syria, which actually meant a green light for Turkey’s long-awaited military operation against the positions of the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates River. The decision was followed by Trump’s next tirade on Twitter, when the US President went hot and cold in his attempts to justify himself before the public and issued threats against Turkey. The US military then began to abandon its positions in the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in earnest, leaving the Kurds defenceless in the face of the Turkish invasion.
The decision, which was criticized by Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate and was not even supported by the Pentagon, for all its apparent impulsiveness, fits perfectly with the logic of Washington’s Middle East policy, which in recent years has become inconsistent and devoid of strategic certainty. With the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS, banned in Russia) as a military machine and quasi-state, the only real imperative for the continued US military presence in north-eastern Syria was to limit the influence of Iran both through control over the buffer territory east of the Euphrates and by preventing the reinforcement of the government in Damascus.
However, the desired problem was not solved. The military alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are predominantly comprised of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has become an effective tool to counter ISIS, but it was functionally useless to combat Iranian expansion, which has become the idée fixe of the entire Middle East policy of the Trump administration. In the face of constant pressure from the leadership of Turkey, for which the alleged connection between the YPG units and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is perceived as a major threat to national security, further deterrence aimed at preventing Ankara from launching the military operation was considered by Trump as inappropriate. In the end, the Kurds are not Saudis, who are able to pay billions of dollars for military support from the United States, and Turkey remains a NATO ally, however “inconvenient” or intractable.
Although Trump, on Twitter, tried to play on the idea of American soldiers returning home popular among his electorate, the consequences of the decision seem to be far from his declared goals. First, a complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria should not be expected. The redeployment is limited to only giving Turkey a corridor to conduct a cross-border operation. The width of this territory, according to president Erdogan, should be at least 35 km; according to the White House, it should be much less. In December 2018, after a telephone conversation with the Turkish leader, Trump announced the withdrawal of all American troops from north-eastern Syria within thirty days, but later had to backtrack this decision under strong pressure from his own military and political circles. Inconsistency in this matter is perhaps the only consistent development of events that can be expected now.
Second, accusations that the United States has betrayed the Kurds are well-grounded. The point is not that the SDF played a major role in the defeat of the ISIS, and not even that the unjustified hopes for American support are on a par with similar disappointments in 1975 (Algerian agreement), 2017 (referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan) and 2018 (Operation Olive Branch in Afrin). The fact is that shortly before the current events, at the request of the United States, the Kurds dismantled part of their defensive fortifications, filled tunnels and removed heavy weapons from the border areas under the pretext that it was necessary to create a “security corridor”, and therefore was the only way to prevent a Turkish invasion. Now, Trump has actually authorised an operation targeting the weakened Kurdish militias. And this is in parallel with sanctions promised to Turkey for the purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems and the recent geopolitical drift of Ankara towards the orbit of Moscow’s influence. After such events, even in Israel, there are voices of doubt, because Washington can no longer be considered a reliable strategic ally.
Nevertheless, the military operation Peace Spring, which began on October 9, with all its pompous coverage for the Turkish audience, is likely to be limited in intensity and scope. At the initial stage, its tasks are reduced to the capture of Manbij, Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, with the subsequent encirclement of Kobani and its isolation from Qamishli. At the same time, there is consensus among key external players (including the US, Russia and Europe) that Erdogan’s far-reaching plans to completely defeat Kurdish militias and, in the future, to populate the “liberated” territories with returning Syrian Arab refugees, should not be realized. They carry serious risks in terms of civilian casualties, and threaten a long-term strategy to counter the remnants of ISIS, as well as the prospects for a political settlement.
The Kremlin’s comment that Turkey needs to “avoid actions that impede a settlement in Syria” can be interpreted as a reminder to Turkey in the Astana format, that Russia had already made concessions to Turkey when the constitutional committee was formed, agreeing not to include the official representatives of Kurdish organizations, as well as the fact that tacit agreements on Idlib cannot be considered in isolation from what is happening on the east bank of the Euphrates. Such deals are not new and have already been used in Russian military diplomacy during the liberation of Aleppo and in the context of the Turkish Olive Branch operation.
However, unlike the Trump administration, which tends to consider bilateral issues in US-Turkish relations as a single package in the framework of a transactional approach, Moscow, in recent years, has learned to split up various areas of functional cooperation with Turkey and isolate issues of obvious mutual interest (Turk Stream, S-400 etc.), from the inevitable disagreements on the Syrian issue. Therefore, we can expect that Turkey’s new military operation will not become a stumbling block in the future development of Russian-Turkish relations, but at the same time threatens to slow down the already-stalled process of the political settlement in Syria.There is one more risk that Russia should take into account in connection with a new round of escalation. Moscow’s calculation may be related to the desire to bring the current situation out of an equilibrium impasse associated with the American military presence. At the same time, this intention is veiled by an expression of readiness to take into account the most urgent security needs of Turkey. However, the principle of the territorial integrity of Syria, adherence to which is declared by all parties of the Astana process and with which Russia implicitly outlines the Turkish operation, can be understood differently in Moscow and Ankara. Even in the event of a subsequent withdrawal of Turkish troops from occupied territories (which is not guaranteed), control over them won’t be to Damascus, but to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been reorganised into the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA). Due to its proxy nature, this will mean the actual preservation of Turkish control over these territories. In other words, the American occupation will be replaced by the Turkish occupation, while an increasingly senseless US military presence is maintained in the territories south of the border.